Monday, August 9, 2010

Written For an Exhibit at Deep Roots in Oakland Where my Work Was Shown Alongside That of My Friend Pedro Moreno in 2005 and an Update

Inspiration for this Show and a History

I moved to the Dutch boy Paint Factory Art Complex in 1987. This dilapidated patchwork of buildings in the heart of the industrial neighborhood of the Fruitvale District of East Oakland is considered by most to be the first artist's live/work studios created from an old factory or warehouse in the East Bay. At the time I moved in, while mostly artists lived and worked in the complex, I was told by my neighbors that the heyday for artists in these particular lofts had already past. Many were moving, had moved, planned to move. These circumstances, I was told, were due to two major factors: after artists had made their places habitable (without reimbursement from the landlord), rents had steadily climbed, pricing most artists out of the market, the other factor being the general unwillingness or slowness of our scofflaw slumlord to fix anything that might be in need of attention in our units. He was (is) an absentee landlord, who from the beginning took advantage of the poverty and need of artists for cheap space and lots of it, to use as residence, studio, gallery space, and storage. He cunningly made use of the inventiveness and creativity of people who were capable of making raw, formerly undesirable space into something quite attractive, while they simultaneously drew people to what had been and remains a remote, forbidding terrain. While I noticed that artists were indeed moving out, other artists would move in to take their place. More often people who were not artists moved in, attracted to the allure of a place that had built its reputation on the hopes and pioneering enthusiasm of artists. Also attractive were the high ceilings, large spaces, and again, perhaps the hope that something of what it is to be truly creative might rub off in some way, be contagious.
Jump cut a decade or more into the future, it is 1995. A baby has been born, is living where we were all assured from the time we moved in that all toxic materials had been removed from the days when our homes had been a factory. The baby is found at a local clinic to have dangerously toxic levels of lead throughout his system. The clinic by law must report this alarming news to the proper authorities at Housing Code Violations.
I date the beginning of the time when all hell broke lose in this place for all tenants from that child's personal calamity, which became the process of eviction for us all. To placate his alarmed tenants, who already saw the writing on the wall, the landlord initiated several meetings, where nothing was accomplished. Nothing was meant to actually happen. Soon after, the evictions began.
Understand that soon after 1978 when my landlord began to do live/work loft business, all tenants were given thirty page leases carefully delineating the demands of our landlord and the regulations governing our residencies on the property; fundamentally, our own rights were signed away. Understand that his agents instructed us with a wink- nudge- nod, that although we were to live here as others had and would, we must keep that knowledge carefully hidden from City Officials and Inspectors. Understand that this landlord was a notorious scofflaw, with or without City sanction and knowledge- the man was doing business without regard to official demands of building code, or permit processes. Understand too, that twenty-six years after he began assuring tenants the clean-up had been done, during which time he had rented to several people who lived here with children, including his own employees, toxic clean-up began. Nine years after the city busted him, forced to enforce by the finding of an infant with lead coursing through his blood stream, toxic clean up finally began.
In the fall of the year 2004 our numbers were down to about 20% of our former population, interestingly almost all artists again. Twelve trees were cut down on the property. Mountains of dirt that had been brought in from the Oakland hills the year previous would soon be put to use. Other mountains of toxic dirt heavily laced with lead and arsenic were trucked out. Under the ground where seven trees in giant wooden tubs had been removed from the parking lot, were seven underground vats containing 94,000 gallons of linseed oil, 12,000 gallons each. A caravan of 48 toxic clean up trucks removed the linseed oil. Next Eighty-seven cement mixer trucks came through to fill the underground tanks with concrete. What had taken the landlord twenty-six years to get around to, finally had been accomplished in roughly three weeks. The kicker is that he had the very cheapest concrete mixed. The stuff exposed at ground level still can be seen to be merely sand under foot at the above ground entrance to each tank. We live above a parking lot filled with sand.
Meanwhile, ongoing construction in the spaces of tenants evicted over the ten year period continues. Essentially the majority of the large spaces are being gutted and divided, most often into thirds, each of which the landlord plans to charge as much for as the previous entire space. It is unknown whether he will again allow tenants to live in the spaces, he has taken out bathrooms, is not building new ones. Sheer wall goes up, windows get covered, and the remaining windows of antique frosted chicken wire glass are relentlessly replaced by the thousands with clear panes. Aside from privacy issues, aside from the obvious earthquake safety of chicken wire glass, aside from aesthetic issues, most of these windows face southeast. On the hottest days of the year the sun comes blasting in. Imagine seeking refuge in your home from 95-degree weather to an indoor area 10 to 15 degrees hotter. I can only imagine this state of affairs when the relative protection offered by frosted glass is removed.
The man who had built a career on lying to the tenants he had built a fortune on, the man who had lied to and evaded city officials always, was finally cleaning up and making his buildings stronger. The man, who appeared to be doing the right thing for once, was once again doing it on the backs of his tenants.
Pedro Moreno became my art student, and very soon my friend, in the summer of 2000. Once a week he visited my studio for the sake of art and learning, in all day sessions that continued for three years. In this time we became the very best of friends. When a loft mate moved out two years ago, Pedro told me he would like to move in to the upstairs studio and bedroom across the larger downstairs studio from my upstairs living quarters. Although at first I felt the need to deliberate long and hard over this decision for many reasons, I gave him the go ahead, and feel now for many more reasons, that it is the best decision I ever made. We are friends, and we are companions in battle against the landlord.
The landlord has been trying to evict Pedro and me since my last ten-year lease ended in January of 2004. On September 1st, the same day of the opening of this collaborative exhibition commemorating our art and our valiant stance, the last evicted tenant will have moved from our building. Pedro and I will be living together, alone in a huge three-story structure that has become a vast wasteland of sporadic construction activity. Our busily productive live/work studio is the last of its kind here, for now. It is, and we are, endangered species.
Our legal battle for now takes place at the City Of Oakland Rent Adjustment Program. Our primary aim as of this moment in time is to both assert and establish our rights as residential tenants, under the law. From the time my last lease ended and the landlord began to try to evict us from our home, it has been one year and nine months. Thus far, we prevail.
Chandra Garsson, 2005

Pedro and I are the best of buddies. We have the kind of friendship that is steel both strong and flexible as can be the case when friendship is subjected to the fire of mutual suffering, the only way I can characterize the eviction of artists.
I landed in a tiny apartment by a lake to live in, my studio of four years is in an old Bank of America Building (a step up I suppose from an old paint factory---at least it is not on toxic ground).
The place was given to me by a dear friend and collector of many years. Very sadly, she died. Her son inherited the building and me. Now he is evicting me. He tells me on the official eviction notice all tenants received:

"Chandra---You don't have to move on the same schedule as rest of folks. Also---I have a space for you that I think will work well. Love, David (happy face drawing :) )"

The move was heavy and long. Much was sold cheap and much else was trashed. Much was fixed after being damaged in the move. Some was left behind by movers disgruntled by a bigger project than they had bargained for. Much was retrieved, including my sanity, after four years of allowing myself to do only that which I choose.
I have tried in vain for a week and a half to arrange a time to see the studio or at least the complex which he thinks I will find suitable, to see if indeed this is the case. I have left several unanswered messages. For now, my only plan is to wait. When he sees fit to show me the other space, then I shall begin the steps necessary toward vacating my studio once again, again to haul, and to begin to build again in a new place.


Four Seasons in a Life said...

Dear Chandra,

It has been difficult to digest as I have been in a similar situation twice and now I am slowly beginning to build down for when it is time to move again.

I can fully understand the situation you are in and I look forward to finally meeting you.

Wishing you all the best,

Chandra Garsson said...

Dear Egmont,
Thank you for the beautiful comment, and the wonderful studio visit, one of the best I was ever honored with.